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Crushed in the rush for bargains

Hayasaki is a Times staff writer.

He took his last breath on a gray floor, between a row of soda machines and a device that disperses change for cans and plastics.

Trampled by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers, Jdimytai Damour, 34, died by asphyxiation, leaving people across the world asking: Why, and how?

Audio-enhanced chatter captured on a cellphone video posted on YouTube, along with interviews with witnesses, offers a hint. The video shows a police officer crouching by a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man lying at the entrance of a Long Island Wal-Mart. A paramedic pumps the man’s chest so forcefully his limp legs and feet joggle. Shoppers peer in from behind glass doors, as others stand a few feet away, hands in pockets.

“They need to shock him,” a voice says. The paramedic stops pumping.

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The man’s shirt has been pulled to his neck, revealing his large belly. A woman in the crowd mutters “pregnant.” Another cracks a joke.

The women begin to laugh.

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The trouble began well before the sun rose.

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Just after 1 a.m., Jennifer Jones, 25, and niece Alicia Sgro, 14, parked themselves behind the 200 or so early shoppers, in front of the Valley Stream store, 20 miles east of Manhattan. Jones wanted the 32-inch plasma flat-screen TV on sale for $388. Sgro hoped to pick up DVDs, like “Cloverfield,” on sale for $2 to $9.

Dressed in heavy coats and a blanket, they brought Pop-Tarts, muffins and Chex Mix for the wait. The couple in front of them wanted the $25 microwave. The guy behind wanted the $5 blender.

By the time Nakea Augustine showed up at 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 25, the line had grown to 1,000, snaking down to a National Wholesale Liquidators store, stopping near a fire hydrant.

Augustine, 26, cut the line, finding a spot in front with her friend, who had been among the first to arrive. She heard people plotting their shopping strategy: One person would run to one section, while the other dashed to another aisle. Augustine had studied the sales brochure before coming. She knew about the Hot Wheels Barbie jeep, regularly around $200, on sale for $88, and the $20 vacuum cleaner.

A 59-year-old man, whom co-workers call “Pop Pop,” was stationed in front of the store. At 5-11 and over 200 pounds, Pop Pop has worked as a door guard for Wal-Mart for the last seven months.

Until three weeks ago, he had been assigned front-door duty, checking customer receipts. Once, a customer poked him in the head for trying to lock the doors when shopping hours ended. Others yelled and argued with him. He moved to back-door duty after getting fed up with rude customers.

But on this morning, Pop Pop agreed to stand in front again, next to a set of doors away from the crowd, where customers would be leaving. Three men worked the side with him, including Damour.

Pop Pop, who was afraid of company reprisal if he gave his full name, remembered Damour telling him, “I don’t want to be here.” He figured Damour meant he didn’t feel like being at work.

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Across the entrance lobby, eight men, younger than Pop Pop, guarded the door closest to the crowd. Pop Pop remembered someone telling Damour to move to that side.

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By 3:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to 2,000, and Jones and her niece decided to fold their chairs, standing to mark their territory. In the 30-degree darkness, their bodies felt hot-glued to everyone else. The line began to heave and sway, like a tugboat dragging its vessels through a heavy current.

Jones watched a gray plastic shopping cart rise above their heads. People passed it from hand to hand, as if it were body-surfing at a rock concert.

Jones heard someone yell “Tickets!”

She felt shoving and pushing.

Augustine heard someone yell “Psych!"-- as in “psyched you out.” People became enraged. The line disintegrated into a chaotic cluster.

“It got scary out of nowhere,” Augustine later recalled. “The crowd in the back just pushed.”

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Someone yanked Augustine’s pocketbook off her shoulder, and ripped the side of her three-quarter-length leather coat.

A woman with a pierced lip pushed Jones, who said back to her: “We can’t move!” She looked up, and felt someone sucker-punch her left temple. The force knocked off her glasses.

Sgro fell to the ground, as the woman with the pierced lip pulled her red hair. Sgro’s right arm was broken. Sgro called her mother, Therese, telling her “we were attacked.” Her mother called 911 and raced to the scene with her husband, Robert, a firefighter.

They got there when police arrived. Therese Sgro told an officer, “Can’t you see the crowd is out of control?”

She said he replied sarcastically: “I’m surprised we haven’t heard gunshots yet.”

Police stayed about a half an hour, leaving before the store opened. Jones and the Sgros left too.

Meanwhile, Augustine was in line, struggling to breathe. Wal-Mart workers kept yelling at the crowd: “Move back four feet!” No one did.

Still, she thought, this was worth it. She has four children, and two have birthdays close to Christmas. She was determined to get the best deals, especially this year, with the souring economy.

Shopping on Black Friday at Wal-Mart is a tradition for her. But in years past, she remembered, the crowd consisted of about 700 people.

Nothing like this.

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Shortly before 5 a.m. an announcement went over store intercom: “Doors are about to open in the next five minutes.” As opening got closer, people started counting down: “Five, four, three, two, one!”

Augustine saw a worker inside begin to open the door, slowly. Suddenly, everyone started pushing from all directions. They knocked the door off its hinges. A worker tried to use it as a shield, but the glass shattered.

The crowd ran right into the soda machines. Pop Pop and others darted to the side where Damour had been, and held the machines in place as the crowd surged forward.

He didn’t see Damour anymore.

Augustine tried to keep her balance as she was pushed forward. She saw people fall and knew she had to keep moving or she’d fall too. One woman had cuts from the glass across her face. Augustine saw Damour sprawled out. She managed not to step on him.

Durell George, 26, who works in Internet sales, heard people screaming and tried to jump out of their way. A woman in brown pants and a long coat fell but others pulled her to the customer service section. George went to see if she was OK.

Augustine kept going, down the jam-packed aisles, still moving with the crowd, still heading to the deals. People guarded the televisions so no one else could grab them. Augustine raced for the toy section and snatched up a bike, a dollhouse, 10 Hannah Montana dolls for $5 apiece.

Two hours later, Augustine checked out, just as the store announced it was closing. She got in line, and spent $495 on 36 items. She did not know what became of the man who had fallen to the ground.

Pop Pop had continued to staff the door, but word eventually spread through the employees that Damour was dead. Paramedics took his body away and police declared the area a crime scene. Pop Pop joined other workers in a prayer.

Later, Pop Pop thought of his daughter. She works at the same Wal-Mart, but was off on Black Friday. It could have been her, he thought, or him.

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Nearly a week after Damour’s death, candles burned next to photos of him, atop an altar near the spot where he died. People left comments in a condolence book:

“So sorry that people did this to a young and honest hardworking gentleman.”

“You damn animals, there was no reason to rush in like a herd of cattle and kill an innocent young man.”

“Jdimytai is an angel and he’s not doing maintenance anymore.”

On Monday, a coroner ruled Damour died from suffocation. On Wednesday, his family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wal-Mart.

By Thursday evening, life at the store had mostly returned to normal. Bored-looking greeters stood hunched at the front doors. Workers rounded up stray grocery carts. Employees clocked out. Overnight staff clocked in.

Pop Pop came outside for a cigarette break, standing steps from where it all happened.

“To me, that boy got killed over $100, for a TV,” he said. “When you see somebody on the ground, you just don’t step on them and keep going. . . . That’s somebody’s life.”

Damour’s altar stood mostly ignored for nearly two hours that night. Customers rushed by without stopping, or even looking. They were too busy getting to the deals.

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com


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